Six Nations 2012: Chris Robshaw embodies the spirit of the new England

On and off the field, the skipper is the new breed of player English rugby needs, says Howard Johnson

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Times are changing in the England rugby camp. After the dismal headlines at last year’s World Cup involving dwarf-throw¬ing and late-night shenanigans, the team was also on the wrong end of plenty of criticism of their efforts on the field as they crashed out of the competition at the quarter-final stage. 

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But there’s a new mood of optimism under interim head coach Stuart Lancaster after two wins in the Six Nations – even if neither could be described as a commanding performance. So will the good vibes survive an encounter with a refreshed, formidable Wales? That will depend to some extent on the new England captain, 25-year-old Chris Robshaw. Until recently he was barely known outside his club, Harlequins, yet you’d be hard pressed to find anyone better to embody the spirit of the new, chastened England than the 6ft 2in flank forward. 

Robshaw made a winning start in his first-ever game as skipper of his country – in what was only his second-ever full international appearance. But ask him how he celebrated England’s victory up in Scotland in the first match of the 2012 Six Nations, and Robshaw admits, “It wasn’t exactly rock ’n’ roll.” Mike Tindall he ain’t. 

“We had a chartered plane to take us straight back home,” he explains. “So there wasn’t really any celebrating. I think the most exciting thing I did was to treat myself to some wine gums and a packet of prawn cocktail crisps at the airport.” 

Robshaw may not be a party animal. But on the field he’s every inch the warrior, working  lung-bustingly hard from first minute to last. He puts it down to being forced to go on long cross-country runs when boarding at Millfield School as a boy. But that’s probably not the whole story. 

His quiet determination to make the most of his talent has been fuelled by personal misfor¬tune. He suffered a broken foot in two separate incidents in 2005 during his first year in the sport, then a broken leg in his second. “You have dark days,” he says. “You realise that injuries can happen and they can be career-ending.” 

Robshaw understands better than most the true meaning of tragedy. When he was just five, his dad Alan died of a heart attack, aged 40, leaving his mum to bring up Chris and his brothers, James and Al. 

“I’m not really sure if it made me more determined,” he says, thoughtfully. “Of course it was devastating when it happened, so sad for every¬one. But I had a fantastic mum and a great family around me. She brought us all up in the right manner and with the right respect for values.” 

And as if that tragedy wasn’t tough enough, Robshaw also had to battle against dyslexia. “School work was always a struggle,” he admits. “I had to work really hard to do things that other people found straightforward. I still have diffi¬culties with learning and with reading, so thank heavens I made it in rugby.” 

And how. Robshaw has now been confirmed as England skipper for the rest of the Six Nations. His performances on the field may have been exemplary so far, but his experiences off the field suggest a man who appreciates both his gifts and his good fortune.

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Coverage of England v Wales in the Six Nations starts at 3:25pm on BBC1